Betroffenheit ranks as one of Vancouver’s biggest stage success stories—touring the globe for two years, eliciting rave reviews, and earning a coveted 2017 Olivier Award in London.
Now, in one of the most anticipated new shows of 2019, choreographer Crystal Pite and actor-writer Jonathon Young are back with Revisor. Tellingly, its world premiere here sold out months ago.
Whereas Betroffenheit mined personal tragedy—a devastating loss in Young’s own family—Revisor takes a less autobiographical direction and plays with stylized political farce.
Yet it continues the exploration of words, theatre, and dance that the pair started with Betroffenheit. And it takes the same kind of dazzling risks.
For his part, Young, who played the anguished central role in Betroffenheit, seems happy to be moving on to something new.
“Betroffenheit was a massive journey and became something I never expected. I feel content with how far it’s reached and I’m ready to say goodbye to it,” he tells the Straight over the phone, while juggling performances in Electric Company Theatre’s recent The Full Light of Day. “So I don’t miss it. But I still get to be in the studio with these incredible artists.”
YOUNG BEGAN WORKING on and “dreaming about” Revisor while touring Betroffenheit. Young had long been fascinated with Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 play The Government Inspector. The tale centres on a poor civil servant whom a small town mistakes for a high-ranking official. He milks the false identity for all it’s worth, accepting bribes and getting drunk off power before fleeing.
“I’m interested in how these forms get passed down and mutate, why they’re recovered and reused and updated—this continual revision and how we maintain order,” Young says.
The finished piece features eight dancers from Pite’s Kidd Pivot company moving to Young’s adapted script, which has been recorded by Canadian actors. That dialogue sometimes gets remixed and distorted. As in Betroffenheit, in which words circle and confine a man in a metaphorical prison of posttraumatic grief, the spoken text creates a kind of score.
“Language releases us and oppresses us and allows us to participate in the world,” Young explains. "Words create this tangled network between us. Language is a network of meaning and emotion and pain and humour. And working with Crystal, we see that language in the body. It’s less concrete than what I’m doing but it has more possibility.”
Young calls his adaptation of the original, five-act script a “process of extreme reduction”.
“My struggle for a long time was how to take this dusty old tale that’s rich with digressions and elaborate language and old-fashioned references, and strip it down to its skeleton and make it contemporary,” he says.
“And then there was just opening these portals where the play stops, and we create opportunities for the more figurative abstractions,” he adds, referring to Pite’s dance-based sequences.
FOR PITE, THE ATTRACTION of The Government Inspector came in trying to adapt farce to dance.
The choreographer says she wasn’t familiar with the Gogol play until Young told her about it.
“It’s about corruption and deception and it’s hilarious, but it’s also sort of wonderfully unfashionable,” says Pite, speaking over the phone on a break from the creation process that has stretched between the Banff Centre and space at Arts Umbrella. “There’s a vintage quality that seemed appealing.”
Pite, a former Ballet B.C. and Ballet Frankfurt dancer, is one of the planet’s most in-demand choreographers. She has productions coming up this year at both Nederlands Dans Theater and the Paris Opera Ballet. Literature has sparked many of the works she does for her own company, Kidd Pivot; one of the best known is her acclaimed Tempest Replica, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
But with Electric Company Theatre’s Young, she loves diving even deeper, pushing the ways that dance and theatre can intersect.
“With Revisor, it’s been fascinating for the dancers to explore story and character and then to see what happens with that when we enter more abstracted territory,” says Pite, who created the script-based The Statement at NDT with Young in 2016. “I think I’ve gained the confidence to take it even further, given the success of the last two pieces—to work with more text and plot and character.”
She thinks of the language as music. “I have to be careful that I bring the audience along—that they don’t get split into seeing and hearing,” she explains. “If the movement is too different from what’s being said, I think they stop listening. So it’s been a great challenge to keep track of that. There are a lot more plot and characters to keep track of here.”
The biggest difference in the dynamic, compared to Betroffenheit, she says has been the laughter. “It’s looking at some pretty dark things in the human condition, but the delivery system at best is funny,” Pite observes. “Farce is funny.”
With all the coming and going of that theatrical form, plus the transitions between more structured plot elements and abstract dance, it’s very handy that she shares an East Vancouver home with Revisor set designer Jay Gower Taylor—who is her partner and fellow parent to their young son Niko. Pite admits she’s been spending long hours playing with all the moving parts of Taylor’s maquette, which sits in her house.
“I love the tactile feeling of picking something up and shifting something,” she says of the model of the set, with its miniaturized door, chandelier, desk, chairs, and phones.
“It’s questions like ‘How do we get this part off and on? Does it have wheels? Do they lock in one position?’ All these little practical things,” she says.
The possibilities, the artists are finding, are endless. Pite and Young are creating a complex new vocabulary for their respective art forms, sparking ideas in each other and finding fresh territory between theatre and dance. And Betroffenheit and Revisor seem to be only the beginning.
“I find it very inspiring and I feel that I’m able to make work that I was never able to before,” Young says without hesitation. “And it seems bottomless where the conversation can go.”
DanceHouse presents Kidd Pivot's Revisor at the Vancouver Playhouse from February 20 to 23.